Dispatch

There's a New Caliph in Town

The Muslim Brotherhood sees a conspiracy to oust it from power around every corner, and it’s prepared to strike preemptively against its enemies -- both real and imagined.

CAIRO - For the first time in Egypt's post-revolutionary political scene, the Muslim Brotherhood's ascendancy is under serious threat. But as a diverse array of political players challenges the Islamist movement's efforts to centralize power, the Brothers are showing no sign of backing down.

The trouble began last week, when President Mohamed Morsy issued a package of sovereign decrees that sacked the nation's prosecutor general, appointed a new one with a mandate to re-open cases against deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle, and -- most importantly -- declared both his own decisions and the assembly drafting the country's new constitution immune from judicial oversight. As scholar Nathan Brown put it, Morsy's edict amounted to a declaration that he was "all powerful ... just for a little while."

Unsurprisingly, Egypt's opposition wasn't about to sit back and let Morsy decide when he would allow rival political voices a seat at the table. Public reaction was swift and fierce: In less than 24 hours, protesters flooded Tahrir Square. In cities across the country, offices of Morsy's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) -- the Brotherhood's political wing --were attacked and burned. One teenager died in the ensuing clashes. The group is poised to hold its own rally on Saturday, which it says will be a "million-man march" in support of the president's decision and efforts to "cleans[e] the country of former regime cronies."

Morsy is no Mubarak with a beard, his advisors insist. He has merely acted to pre-empt a plot by Mubarak regime holdovers and opposition politicians that would have seen the country's high court dissolve the constitutional assembly and annul the president's election victory -- a judicial coup that would throw the country into chaos, they say.

Pressed for evidence of the plot during a prerecorded television interview aired on Nov. 29, Morsy declined to provide any. He warned of "enemies" outside the country and said he had obtained knowledge about a plot, even though it had yet to turn into "proper evidence." "When I have this information and I feel my country is under threat, I have to make difficult decisions," he said.

The decrees, their fallout, and the Brotherhood's reaction are emblematic of the group's views of the Egyptian political scene five months after winning the presidency and nearly two years after the revolution opened the path for their political dominance.

Victories at the polls have buoyed the group's confidence -- some would say arrogance -- and solidified its pre-existing conception of Egypt's non-Islamist opposition as tiny and irrelevant -- a constituency that can if necessary be outvoted and outmanned on the streets to push through the Brotherhood's agenda. For the Brotherhood, the prospect of losing its political majority seems so unlikely that the possibility has not even entered into its strategic calculations.

"Should we show you our might?" said Hazem Kheir Eddin, an FJP political adviser who writes for its media outlets, when pressed about the Brotherhood's margin of victory in the recent elections. "If you can mobilize half a million men, we can mobilize 20 million men."

Yet the group's decision-making remains opaque, and its most influential members still adhere to a belief that the deep state is in league with their political opponents to ruin them. This sense of paranoia set the scene for last week's sweeping power grab, and it could mean further confrontation as steamrolled opposition groups feel pushed out of the business of deciding Egypt's future.

"The same people who are now having press conferences are the primary elements of the past regime whining about what President Morsy has been doing," said Gehad al-Haddad, a top FJP advisor.

Instead of seeking a compromise, the Brotherhood is pressing forward on issues guaranteed to provoke further conflict. The constituent assembly, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Salafi politicians, finished voting on the new constitution on Friday, and the document will probably go to popular referendum in less than a month. It is being decided after more than 20 delegates walked out in protest over what they described as the Brotherhood's unwillingness to negotiate. Those walkouts could have doomed the assembly to dissolution by the courts had Morsy not immunized it.

In the Brotherhood's view, the walk-out delegates -- among them every Christian representative -- are political opportunists practicing a public "charade," according to Haddad, after negotiating the articles they wanted. The Brotherhood believes that the opposition has become alarmed at the prospect that Islamists will earn historic credit for drafting post-revolution Egypt's founding document. (According to prominent liberals and figures like Human Rights Watch's Heba Morayef, however, the document was rushed to completion and retains gaping holes on human rights.)

"They are scared [Morsy's] success will repeat the Turkish experience," said Murad Aly, the FJP's communications director. "When Islamists will succeed and achieve something for the Egyptian people in economy, in prosperity, in social justice and things like that, it will end with an Islamist party for 10 years or 15 years in office."

Throughout the process of drafting the constitution, the Brotherhood described itself as a beleaguered middleman in the debate, saddled with the task of negotiating consensus between irreconcilable poles that include Salafis seeking a literal interpretation of Islamic law and revolutionary socialists pressing for liberalization of women's rights. They viewed the walkouts as a cynical betrayal after months of hard compromises, pointing to their success in fending off Salafi efforts to rewrite in far stricter terms the decades-old article stating that the principles of Islamic law are the basis of legislation.

The Brotherhood could have tried talking the disgruntled delegates back into the fold. But it seems to be in no mood to compromise: Its top officials do not think the opposition was acting in good faith and, more importantly, they believe the movement has been granted several large popular mandates, dating back to a first stunning parliamentary showing in 2005, during a brief lacuna in Mubarak-era repression.

"The constituency that votes Islamist in Egypt all the way since 2005 is 70 percent," said Kheir Eddin. That constituency did not just vote for legislators, he said, but also for a constitution. "People elected parliamentarians to steer everything politically for the revolution."

The tone on the Brotherhood's Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb, has also become more strident and exclusionary. The account claimed on Tuesday that "ordinary Egyptians" saw those massing in Tahrir as partisans tainted by the presence of Mubarak sympathizers, not the same revolutionaries who came out in 2011.

And it boasted that it still maintained the popular edge: "[The] opposition thinks the significance of today is # of Tahrir protestors (200-300k), they shld brace for millions in support of the elected prez."

The Brotherhood's belief in its overwhelming political superiority means that it tends to attribute any defeat to nefarious influences or conspiracy. Haddad, for instance, claimed undercover video posted online showed an opposition politician who had walked out of the constituent assembly describing the draft constitution as the "best ever written" and saying he could not allow the Brotherhood to take credit for it. Kheir Eddin claimed a group of left-wing officials including Supreme Constitutional Court Judge Tahani el-Gibaly and former presidential contender Hamdeen Sabahi had similarly been caught on video discussing the plot to dissolve the assembly and annul Morsy's election results. Like the president, neither was willing or able to provide evidence.

Inside the Brotherhood's rank and file, there seems to be faith in the party line at what is seen as a critical moment. Even among those who are upset with Morsy's blunt grant of immunity for himself and the assembly, none would dissent publicly, said Abdelrahman Ayyash, a young former member who maintains ties throughout the group but opposes the way it has led the constitutional process.

"They're not intending to be dictators. I believe they don't want to do this," he said. "They are thinking these decisions will protect the revolution, they will be a real [defense] to the Supreme Court and the media that is demolishing Morsy's reputation, so they believe that there are a lot of enemies and these enemies will not be defeated by anything but immunizing the [assembly]."

Ayyash said a prominent official in the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, its highest decision-making body, told him prior to the current crisis that the Egyptian people are "very satisfied" with Morsy and a majority support his decisions. Other officials cite polls, almost all of them conducted online, that show significant approval of the president's decrees.

In the short term, even revolutionaries reluctantly admit the Brothers' political calculus will probably result in a victory for the constitutional referendum. But in the background of such a triumph, the political environment would still remain more polarized than ever before. Already, the flashes of violence and unbending positions on both sides have given rise to whispered worries about civil war among protesters huddled in Tahrir.

"Not even the pharaohs had so much authority," said liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei in the wake of Morsy's decree. "This is a catastrophe -- a mockery of the revolution that brought him to power and an act that leads one to fear the worst."

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Dispatch

How Israel Lost Europe

How Benjamin Netanyahu lost friends and Mahmoud Abbas influenced people.

BERLIN — There was never much doubt that the U.N. General Assembly would overwhelmingly vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to the status of nonmember state on Nov. 29. The big surprise of the event was that a number of key Western European countries did not join the United States and vote against the resolution. The Czech Republic was the only European country to vote against the upgrade, and shockingly, the normally staunchly pro-Israeli governments of Germany and Britain decided to abstain. Does this mean that Israel has lost Europe?

Germany's surprising decision, in the eleventh hour, to shift from opposing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's bid to abstaining on it was reportedly tied to the question of Israel's ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank -- a recent source of contention in European capitals. Germany appears to have taken this opportunity to address the conflict on the world stage.

This decision was especially shocking to Israelis given Germany's historical relationship with the Jewish state. Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in a 2008 speech before the Knesset that she supported Israel's right to defend itself and that only the Israelis and Palestinians -- without external interference -- could negotiate a two-state solution.

"Every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security," Merkel said then. "This historical responsibility is part of my country's raison d'être. For me as German chancellor, therefore, Israel's security will never be open to negotiation."

The Federal Republic has based a large chunk of its devotion to Israel's security on the notion of Wiedergutmachung, or reparations for the German crimes against European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Although Germany likes to present itself as Israel's strongest ally in Europe, the relationship has often been shaky. Take the example of Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's national security advisor and Middle East point man, who in 2009 -- a year after the chancellor's speech before the Knesset -- sought to convince U.S. envoys to weaken Washington's opposition to the United Nations' Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza during that year's Operation Cast Lead.

According to a WikiLeaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin at the time, Heusgen "thought [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu needed 'to do more' in order [to] bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. With Palestinians in East Jerusalem getting notices from Israeli authorities that their houses will be destroyed, it would be 'suicide' for President Abbas to move under the current circumstances."

The cable continued: "Heusgen said he could not fathom why Netanyahu did not understand this. He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable UNSC [U.N. Security Council] treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."

In 2010, Merkel and Netanyahu had a heated telephone exchange over the settlements issue, and the relationship further frayed over Germany's decision this year to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's representation in Berlin to that of a full diplomatic mission with an ambassador.

Germany's U.N. abstention on Nov. 29 may also have been driven by domestic calculations. Specifically, Merkel may inherit the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a coalition partner in a new government in elections in late 2013. This month, SPD officials hosted representatives of Palestine's ruling Fatah party at the SPD's Berlin headquarters and published a joint declaration affirming a "strategic partnership" between the two parties.

Meanwhile, France's relations with Israel have been uneasy for more than a decade. Famously, in 2001, France's ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, called Israel "that shitty little country." More recently, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy offended the Israelis with his famous hot-mic fiasco at the 2011 G-20 meeting, in which he told U.S. President Barack Obama he couldn't stand Netanyahu (and Obama concurred).

During Sarkozy's tenure, France was also a vocal proponent of upgrading the Palestinian status at UNESCO. When the Paris-based UNESCO granted the Palestinians member-state status, U.S. law compelled the Obama administration to withhold its $80 million annual contribution to the organization. Washington registered its displeasure with the move in no uncertain terms. As State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated, the vote was "regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East."

Sarkozy's successor, François Hollande, did not let the financial blow to this Paris-based organization get in the way of his support for the Palestinians at the United Nations. Hollande has made clear that the settlement issue is a priority for his government. "It erodes the building of trust between the sides and constitutes an obstacle to a just peace, based on a two-state solution," said France's Foreign Ministry in a statement this month.

In a late-October meeting with Netanyahu in Paris, Hollande said that the two countries had "divergences on occupation, which we want to see halted."

Although Hollande has played his cards close to the vest, he announced this week that he would support Abbas's bid. His position against the Jewish state was particularly startling given the recent uptick in anti-Semitic violence that has rocked France in recent years, forcing Paris and Jerusalem to jointly deal with this disturbing trend.

With France pushing for Palestinian statehood and Germany largely sitting out the fight, other European governments soon cast their votes in favor of Abbas's bid too.

According to one European diplomat well versed in Spain's foreign policy, Hollande capitalized on the weak Spanish economy to push Madrid to vote for the PLO's upgrade. "France knows our weakness -- the bank crisis -- and expanded it to foreign policy," he said. In short, the diplomat noted that Spain had joined France as part of a bloc of countries -- including Italy and Portugal -- in exchange for France's protection in upcoming rounds of austerity talks.

The diplomat also noted that Spain is attempting to obtain a seat on the U.N. Security Council and that the vote may have been a way to court favor from Arab countries.

Israel could once count on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's staunch support, but this has given way to successor Mario Monti's cold shoulder. Monti's support for the Palestinian bid was an about-face from Italy's position when Abbas attempted a similar maneuver one year ago.

(As for the now-isolated Czechs, Prague's decision to veto the PLO's move came as no surprise. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has dubbed noble-born Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg the "Zionist prince" for his support during Operation Cast Lead.)

Israel's brief war against Hamas in Gaza this month may also have had an impact on EU decision-makers. Faced with the PLO's deepening irrelevance and the growing potency of Hamas and its Iranian military arsenal on Israel's southern border, Israeli officials say that the Europeans may have wanted to give the nonviolent Abbas a moment in the sun. In other words, they wished to demonstrate approval for bureaucratic and legal strategies over the brutal violence of Abbas's rivals in Gaza.

So, after the better part of a decade of diplomacy between PLO embassies and their host governments from Latin America to the Levant, Abbas won his diplomatic upgrade.

Israel, for its part, made no diplomatic overtures to counter Abbas's whirlwind tour of European capitals over the last two years, which included multiple visits to multiple capitals, including Berlin. The Israelis produced no tangible alternative to persuade European leaders from voting for the upgrade. Abbas badly outflanked Netanyahu, while Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who remains widely reviled among Europeans, did not exercise the diplomatic finesse necessary to keep Israel's continental allies at his side.

In fairness, Israel always faced an uphill battle in Europe, where Muslim populations are on the rise and pro-Palestinian sentiments continue to gain traction. From the EU's perspective, Israel's long-standing recalcitrance over settlements and the rise of Hamas probably made support for Abbas inevitable.

But for Netanyahu to find himself all alone, with only a reluctant partner in Washington and seven other countries by his side, must surely have come as a shock.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images